Houdini, (my shihtzu mix) is the most loyal, loving dog I have had the pleasure of owning. He would walk through fire for me. That kind of loyalty is not often seen in a dog, and I thank him for it every day.
Houdini has one issue, that puts a rather large, dark cloud over our heads, and for years was a constant strain on our relationship. His separation anxiety. His anxiety levels have at times been so bad that we were nearly evicted from our NYC apartment, he nearly bankrupted me in dog daycare fees, and I was unable to enjoy “down time” with friends for fear that he was barking or destroying the apartment while I was away!!
Separation anxiety is not fun for either you or your dog, and in my case made for awkward interactions with neighbors who hated my dog (and who thought I was a bad owner).
I am not going to beat about the bush here, dealing with separation anxiety is not fun (especially when you live in a small apartment) and takes time, commitment and understanding from an owner to work with the dog to overcome its anxiety. But it can be dealt with.
Sadly, separation anxiety is still the number one reason that dogs are re-homed and I can understand why! I am a dog behaviorist with over 14 years experience and I found it difficult. I would cry myself to sleep after reading yet another nasty note from the neighbor across the hall, or next door complaining about howling and constant barking. I would get so angry at Houdini that I wanted to scream when I had to change my sheets and covers every day as there were soaked in urine and poop.
Understanding what causes separation anxiety and how to help your dog deal with it is the first step to healing and learning how to support your dog when he needs you.
Separation anxiety is caused when your dog becomes distressed when left alone. This may sometimes be left totally alone, or left with others but without you. Every dog is slightly different with this.
Like humans, dogs are social animals and develop strong social attachments. A dog with separation anxiety doesn’t just like you leaving, but is both mentally and physically distressed by your absence.
It’s hard to tell by looking if a dog suffers from anxiety, however there is some research suggesting that early abandonment issues and genetics may also factor into it. Some breeds are also more anxious than others.
Visible distress- Panting, Drooling, Heavy Breathing
Scratching at doors
Urinating and Pooping (especially on items that smell of the owner- shoes, beds. etc)
Vocalization- Barking and Howling
Sometimes exercising your dog more can relieve anxiety.
Give your dog something to chew on. Chewing releases happy endorphin’s which can help calm an anxious dog. Houdini gets all his meals in Kongs now.
Don’t make a fuss of your dog when you leave him alone, or return. This prevents giving him a reason to become more anxious.
Break up your routine. We all have specific routines that we do before we leave (shoes on, coat on, find keys), these are often triggers for your dog to start to get anxious. By breaking up your routine, you prevent the triggers for anxiety.
Make being alone fun. With Houdini, he only gets fed from his Kong when I leave the house. This allows him to associate an unpleasant activity (me leaving) with something fun (his yummy meal).
Become a little more boring so your dog does not rely on your for all mental stimulation.
Seek help. There is no shame in asking a vet or behaviorist for help. They are trained to help you and your dog in these situations and in just a few sessions, your dog’s anxiety levels may reduce significantly
It took me 6 months of training to get to the point where Houdini could be left alone for extended periods of time without stress. If your dog suffers from anxiety, I understand, and am here for you. Please feel free to ask any questions and I will do my best to answer them for you.
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I am so blessed that I have not had that problem with Layla, she watches me leave and what I found to ease it is taking my backpack, she sees that and knows I am going to work. Thanks for the great post
Thank you so much for your comment. It wasn’t a fun period of time but so glad we are over it all
Oh poor Houdini! Phoebe had some separation anxiety too in the beginning but nothing like this. I’m so glad you were able to help him. It can be done, it just takes time & patience. Thanks for sharing Houdini’s story.
Love & biscuits,
Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them
Thank you so much for commenting. How is Phoebe’s separation anxiety now?
Your advice to seek help is one many people should do sooner – better for your own mental health and the dog’s, especially if you do not have the skills to cope (some people would just panic and worry without doing much as a result).
It would be better for the dog and, as someone who has had a barking dog out the back and can sympathise with the annoyed neighbour, positive action by the owner would ensure the dog has a contented wait until you come home.
One thing occured to me, we have a greta pet sitter, he also walks dogs. Would having someone walk a dog be of help do you know or would that make things worse?
Seeking help is so important. I ended up having to get my vet to help in order to get Houdini some meds to try.
Dog walkers can sometimes help for two reasons
1) The dog is more tired when left alone
2) It introduces someone new and fun into the mix (great if you are the only care giver for the animal)
However, depending on the level of severity depends on how much these would work
Poor Houdini. He is so lucky to have you for a mom. We bet this advice will help a lot of people.
That must have been so difficult for you, Houdini and the neighbors! I’m glad you were able to alleviate his anxiety issues.
Thankfully our dogs seem okay when we leave them home alone. You are so right about dogs picking up on our cues that we are preparing to leave. I noticed my dog Sophie would get into her crate before I was ready to walk out the door.
Nice article. Treating dog separation anxiety can certainly be a challenge. It takes a very dedicated family to successful go through a separation anxiety training program. Glad you were able to help your boy.
This is a really good article – and the fact that you are feeding Houdini from a Kong I bet helps keep his little mind exercised (which is equally important). We may have to try that with one of our pups – not separation anxiety but definitely has more energy than a little 14 pound dog ever has had to my knowledge (so anything to wear him out)!
What a great post. Although I’ve never had to deal with separation anxiety, I can only imagine how stressful it can be on both the dog and the owner. So happy to hear you were able to help Houdini. Thanks for sharing!
Kilo gets treats as I leave so he doesn’t mind and usually sleeps but he does bark at things and people on the street and get into mischief. I now have a Furbo that texts me when he barks and I can throw him treats and talk to him.
My mom’s dog experiences some separation anxiety. She almost lost him when they used to leave him at a kennel when they went out of town. Now, I stay with him when they need to go overnight so he is less stressed
Our dog Lucy suffers from separation anxiety, but thankfully it doesn’t like it’s as bad as Houdini’s – poor little guy 🙁 Lucy has to follow me everywhere. If I walk out of her line of sight or go into another room, she is always right there. She has gotten better about being left alone at home, though we do have to crate her. She only cries sometimes. Thanks for the helpful tips for dealing with this!
Luckily neither of my dogs have separation anxiety, even though Echo would prefer to always be with me. I think he could easily develop separation anxiety if I wasn’t careful. I have always made sure to supply him with plenty of toys and special treats that make being left alone not so bad. It seems to work for him!
Such a great post! I had separation anxiety for the longest time. The best thing my human did to help my anxiety was getting me a sister! 🙂
What an important post for pet parents to read! Separation anxiety can be a daunting problem, but the important thing for people to understand is that it is fixable!
Hi I have a 5 yr Cocker Spaniel-a rescue- suffers from SA badly. Will bark at my front windows until we return. We tried every way to keep her away from the windows – nothing works. The kong treat keeps her busy for a while. We are now using a crate – it is left open for her to go in and out. She loves it, takes her toys in there, in and out of it at her own accord. When we leave I I put her in there, toys kong,etc. I felt so bad starting this – but she seems to enjoy her crate,settles down quietly. So I think I have found an answer – one I would not have wanted – but it is working for all of us.
It would be so hard to have a dog with separation anxiety! I have seen a few dogs that seem to have trouble with their owners leaving them alone. Luckily for me, separation anxiety is a little different for cats. They aren’t usually upset about being left alone for short periods of time, but they do get anxious when one of their owners is gone for a day or more. My Manna got so anxious when I was away at the BlogPaws Conference last year ( about 4 days) that she would eat. I was really panicked about it. It turned out that after I was home for a little while, she resumed her normal habits.
I have an almost one year old boxer/lab mix by the name of Minnie. She’s super active and absolutely LOVES to play with balls. I constantly have to fish them from under the sofa. About three weeks ago I left from five days on an Iceland trip. This wasn’t the first time Minnie stayed alone at night without me but it was the longest. My mom watched her that week and I thought that would make it a little bit better considering we live with my mom currently. Upon my return I found out that Minnie had hardly eaten anything while I was gone, she lost a lot of weight, and she whined. A lot. I figured since I was back she would bounce right back bc she had never shown any signs of separation anxiety. The very next day after I got back I had to go to the grocery store and she was alone for maybe 2 hours. She broke out of a brand new crate and destroyed a pair of shoes, a beanie, and several of my nephew’s toys. Then I left again to get dinner with some friends and I was gone for maybe an hour. She broke out again and destroyed more things. She’s always been in a crate when left alone at home so that’s nothing new for her. She was barely eating a cup a day when she’s used to eating 3 cups a day. I was getting very concerned. So I gave it a week just to see if it got better or worse. It got worse. I eventually had to zip tie her crate to prevent her from hurting herself. I also had to use a larger crate I have to block the crate she’s in from being moved to the carpeted area in the living room since she had destroyed some of the carpet after kicking the tray out of her crate. It’s going into week four and I’m getting extremely nervous bc I will be moving into an apartment in the next month or two and of course Minnie is coming with me. I CANNOT afford to have her destroy the apartment and I refuse to give her away. Her vet gave me some Diazepam to give her while I’m at work but it’s really not helping that much. I play with her constantly every day. If the weather is nice then when I get home from work she gets to run around outside while I throw two of her balls to her. And then when we get inside I’ll bounce a couple of her smaller balls around for her after she eats. Her eating habits have gotten better but still aren’t at 100%. I just need to know what I can do to help Minnie get pass her anxiety. Pet daycare has been suggested to me but they are so incredibly expensive in this area.